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Chuck Off

Post Office, Charles Bukowski (1971)

Like Cormac McCarthy and William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski is a big name in terms of the non-conformist maverick community.

Like McCarthy and Burroughs, it’s taken me years to get round to trying one of his books.

Like McCarthy and Burroughs, I’ve discovered that I can’t stand him.

I’m once again relieved to confirm that I’m not a member of the non-conformist maverick community.

Okay, Bukowski isn’t pretentious like McCarthy or paedoproctotropic like Burroughs. But he makes up for that by being even more boring. Good writers can make the English language sing. Bukowski makes it snore. Then turn over in bed and fart. And snore some more. He uses simple sentences, see? Page after page. For a whole book. Simple sentences. For a whole book. Page after page. Sentences that are simple. Page after page. Simple sentences, see? Page after page. For a whole book.

Not that I got anywhere near finishing the whole book. I didn’t even finish the first three pages. And not that simple sentences can’t be used to say interesting things and conjure vivid images. But Bukowski doesn’t use them to say interesting things or conjure vivid images. He uses them to write boringly about American low-life. To non-conformist mavericks outside America, the “American” of the low-life undoubtedly explains much, if not all, of his appeal. Non-conformist mavericks in Britain, for example, are endlessly fascinated by America because they’ve seen it so much on TV and film. Just like non-maverick mainstream British folk, in fact. It’s just that maverick Brits watch maverick American stuff and mainstream Brits watch mainstream American stuff. But the same rule applies in both cases: Monkey see, monkey like. Indeed, you’d think that many British non-conformist mavericks were American, from the vocab they use and the ideas they express and the things they’re passionate about. Sorry: passionate.

“Maverick” is, of course, an American word and concept. Charles Bukowski was a maverick, for example. Like Burroughs and the rest of the Beats. So no wonder mavericks in Britain like the Beats and Burroughs and Bukowski. As for me, I think the Beats were (and are) a private American joke at the expense of foreigners. Americans thought: “Can we pass off a whole bunch of boring and banal writers as far-out and radical and exciting just coz they’re American?” It turned out they could. And still can. I admire the American ability to keep a straight face for so long.

But I don’t admire Bukowski. If you do admire him, let me make a simple prediction: You say (and write) “in terms of” and “prior to” a lot.

Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity…

Highway to Hell – review of The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Elsewhere Other-Accessible…

Titus Graun – interrogating issues around two keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community…

Dong, Peter Sotos and Sam Salatta (TransVisceral Books 2022) (with limited-edition CD and full-color instruction booklet)

It started with a tweet:

My dong is bigger than your dong!

– Sam Salatta (@PsychoSalatta)

No, my dong is bigger than YOURS.

– Peter Sotos (@PeterSotos)

And MINE frightens children.

– Peter Sotos (@PeterSotos)

So does mine.

– Sam Salatta (@PsychoSalatta)

Prove it!

– Peter Sotos (@PeterSotos)

The challenge was made: the contest was on. And so Sotos and Salatta set out to compare dongs, and frighten children, on an extensive tour of Europe and South America. But their head-to-head heresiarchomachy will have come as no surprise to those who were aware that the deviant duo are not just keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community, but also corely committed key components of the campanological community.

Yes, that’s right: Sotos and Salatta are dedicated tuggers and tossers. They tug a rope – and high above a bell tosses, pealing forth the joyous dings-and-dongs of which they are both rightly proud. Bell-ringing is a tradition that has run in the Sotos and Salatta families for generations. It’s part craft, part sport, demanding both skill and strength, as you’ll see in the accompanying instruction-booklet and hear on the accompanying CD. You don’t get a big dong just by tugging and hoping. As in drumming, the loudest performers combine physicality with finesse.

Sotos and Salatta have both in spades, but I still can’t believe that (as reported here) they managed to deploy their dongs for eight hours straight in a country church in Bavaria. Were stimulants involved? The deviant duo aren’t saying and maybe they’re right not to respond to the accusations. If you want to discover for yourself quite how tricky the apparently simple task of pulling off a big dong can be, the accompanying booklet gives you full instructions on how to join the über-esoteric and ultra-exciting world of campanology.

And whatever the controversies, one thing is certain: with the release of Dong, TransVisceral Books have come up toxic trumps again, forging an incendiary benchmark that leaves all other extreme publishers coughing in their dust and scrambling to claw back mephitic market-share in the agora of abjection.

Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity…

Toxic Twosome – review of Doll by Peter Sotos
K-9 Konundrum – review of Dog by Peter Sotos

Naked Krunch: The Sinister, Sordid and Strangely Scrumptious Story of SavSnaq, Dr David M. Mitchell (Savoy Books 2022)

Genius creates. We can all agree on that. But genius also… connects. And perhaps the greatest literary connection of the past fifty years and more was made when maverick Mancunian publisher Savoy Books began to interrogate core issues around the Holocaust, on the one hand, and crisps, on the other (“potato chips”, in American English).

It was a perfect example of that signature Savoyish celebration of jarring juxtaposition, of high and low culture, the epochal and the trivial, the supremely sacred and the sensibility-smashing subversive. But once the connection was made, yes, it seemed both utterly wrong and utterly right. As Savoy C.E.O. David Britton himself said: “Crisps are rock’n’roll in motherfucking excelsis – cheap, strongly flavoured, and loud!”

And when did Britton first bring crisps and the Holocaust together in the atrocitous atom-smasher of his incendiary imagination? It was in the transgressive toxi-text Fuck off and Diet (1997). Recall the scene where Lord Horror performs a pas-de-deux with Eva Braun on the burning hull of a cannibal-crewed Zeppelin plummeting parapraxically to its doom on a municipal gasworks in Rusholme. Just before the end of the scene, Horror remarks to Eva in twelfth-century Guipúzcoan Basque: “Fancy a pickled onion?” Eva responds by silently – and synergistically – removing a single dead-Jew-flavoured crisp from her cleavage; sliding it into her mouth; crunching it with a sly wink; then belching Zyklon-B into Horror’s face. He savours the cyanide slay-gas with a sigh of satisfaction even as the Zeppelin hits the gasworks and explodes.

Maverick Munch… A seemingly innocent bowl of SavSnaq crisps…

It’s one of the most disturbing moments in one of the most disturbing books ever written. There are no more overt references to crisps and the Holocaust in the remainder of FOAD, but Britton was merely biding his time. As Dr David M. Mitchell describes in the first third of Naked Krunch, although crisps were a seemingly casual component of FOAD, six years later they had become a major motif of what is perhaps Britton’s maximal masterwork, the epoch-eviscerating Basted in the Broth of Billions (2003). Among much else in the book, Auschwitz is a felonious food-factory where Jews are turned into cheese’n’onion crisps, Gypsies into BBQ-Beef hula-hoops, homosexuals into smoky-bacon Pringles (“Once you popper, you can’t stopper!”), and so on. Mitchell conducts a thorough crispological survey of BitBoB, hunting down and hermeneuticizing even the most remote and recondite references to crisps, crisp-crunching and the Holocaust.

Having completed that literary survey of Savoy’s crisp-connecting, he next embarks on a detailed history of SavSnaq, the crispocentric company launched by Savoy to “storm the ramparts of the savoury-snack / party-nibbles market.” One of their early marketing slogans was “SavSnaq = Maximal Munch.” Another was: “You’ll Nosh Nowt Noxiouser.” And they did their very best to live up to the menace of that slogan. Mitchell describes how, in the early days, SavSnaq teetered on the brink of bankruptcy multiple times, as Britton & Co. fought off vicious legal challenges from the Health and Safety Executive after weaponizing a “Burroughs-themed heroin-flavoured crisp range.” Even today SavSnaq has never turned a profit, but Mitchell sets out an unassailable case that SavSnaq’s party-nibbles and savoury snacks have done to food-manufacturing what Savoy’s books and graphic novels had already done to English literature: revolutionized and reinvigorated a sadly and suffocatingly staid and sedentary sector.

Savinyl Tap: the wradical wrapper of SavSnaq’s Heretical Heroin™ range of “none-more-black” Burroughs-themed crisps…

In the first edition of Naked Krunch, Mitchell ended things there; in this updated edition, he goes on to examine the continuing impact of Savoy’s crisp-connections on wider culture. To take but one example: radical musicians have embraced Savoy’s incendiary interrogation of crisp-crunch to create revolutionary new genres, including the cataclysmic “crispcore” practised by sensory-overloading sonic terrorists Crunch-E))), who are now widely hailed as “the loudest band in the multiverse.” Dressed in shiny imitation crisp-wrappers, the three musicians of Crunch-E))) each eat a single packet of crisps into an ultra-sensitive microphone on stage. The resultant crunching is then slowed dramatically and amplified enormously before being projected through giant speakers onto an enraptured audience bathed in billowing clouds of cheese-and-onion-scented artificial smoke.

As Mitchell relates, David Britton once joked that every packet of SavSnaq crisps should be “so loud that every motherfuckin’ muncher develops terminal tinnitus.” Crunch-E))) have realized that visceral vision. The band have also explicitly acknowledged their artistic debt to Savoy and SavSnaq by naming their first three albums Basted (2005), Broth (2006) and Billions (2008). But this extra publicity for Savoy has not increased sales of Savoy’s books or of SavSnaq’s products. As Mitchell emphasizes repeatedly throughout Naked Krunch: Savoy and SavSnaq remain far too dangerous for general consumption.

And they always will. But the counter-cultural cognoscenti will continue to savour every last crumb that falls from super-subversive Savoy’s teratotropicly toxic table…

Previously Pre-Posted on Papyrocentric Performativity…

Fuck Off and Dienetics…Headpress CEO Norman Nekrophile surveys Savoy’s satirical saunter thru Scientology…
Naked Krunch — interrogating issues around David Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions (2008)
Commit to Crunch — a review of Will Self’s Maverick Munch: Selecting a Sinisterly Savory Snack to Reinforce Your Rhizomatically Radical Reading (TransVisceral Books 2016)

Clive DriveUnreliable Memoirs (1980) and Always Unreliable: The Memoirs (2001), Clive James

Nou’s WhoArt Nouveau, Camilla de la Bedoyere (Flame Tree Publishing 2005)

Hit and MistletoeThrough It All I’ve Always Laughed, Count Arthur Strong (Faber & Faber 2013)

Beauties and BeastsShardik, Richard Adams (1974)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Unreliable Memoirs (1980) and Always Unreliable: The Memoirs (2001), Clive James

I first came across Clive James on TV and wasn’t impressed. He’s smug, unfunny and trivial, I thought as I watched him making laboured gags about cheap targets like Japanese endurance-shows. So when I later came across books by him in libraries or second-hand bookshops – The Crystal Bucket (1981) and North Face of Soho (2006) are two titles that come to mind – I didn’t even bother picking them up. Lit’s long, life’s short, and all that.

But one day I came across Unreliable Memoirs (1980), the first volume of his autobiography. And I’d had an interesting literary experience by then. Out of idle curiosity, I’d tried Going to Sea in a Sieve (2012), the autobiography of Danny Baker, someone else I disliked from seeing him on TV (and hearing him on the radio). Before reading Going to Sea, I thought Baker was a brash, loudmouthed vulgarian. Oh, and unfunny and trivial too. But Going to Sea turned out to be one of the best-written, most entertaining and most intelligent autobiographies I’ve ever read. It made me re-think some of my preconceptions not just about Baker but about a lot of other things. Okay, it wasn’t ground-breaking literature and it didn’t reveal the secrets of the Universe, but Baker obviously deserved his success and wasn’t what I thought he was. Going Off Alarming (2014) and Going on the Turn (2017), two further volumes of Baker’s autobiography, were also very good.

Well, if I was so wrong about Danny Baker, perhaps I was wrong about Clive James. So I tried Unreliable Memoirs and discovered that there was no “perhaps” about it. I had indeed been wrong about James. He wasn’t smug, unfunny and trivial. Or not all the time, at least. Certainly not in his vivid and often hilarious evocations of his ’50s childhood and ’60s youth in Australia with a widowed mother. The book gets less good as he grows up and by the time he’s at university the writing is less evocative and less memorable. It’s merely good rather than excellent. In Falling Towards England (1985) and May Week Was in June (1990), the two further volumes of autobiography in an omnibus edition I picked up later, he doesn’t match the best of Unreliable Memoirs. The writing is good, not excellent, and the soon-to-be famous people he’s meeting are less interesting than the never-famous-at-all people he met as a child. But he’s still coming up with clever gags at his own expense and with vivid descriptions of the new places he encountered after leaving Australia for London, Cambridge and Europe. Here he is describing his first visit to Venice:

Before the vaporetto was halfway down the Grand Canal I was already concussed. Heat focused by a nacreous sky like the lining of a silver tureen dissolved the water into a storm of sparks, which were projected as wobbling bracelets of pure light on the otherwise maculate façades of crumbling marble and rotting plaster. The whole place was being eaten alive by liquid luminosity. It was a vision of eternity as soluble as a rusk, God’s love made manifest as a wafer in the world’s wet mouth. – ch. 10, “Attack of the Killer Bee”, May Week Was in June

I like that. I don’t rank Clive James with Evelyn Waugh and Clark Ashton Smith as masters of English prose, but he could certainly turn a phrase. And Italy was where he began turning himself into a remarkable autodidact, able to read and appreciate prose and poetry in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. He says that at Cambridge he spent most of his time roaming off the curriculum and felt very lucky to earn the 2:1 that allowed him to take a PhD. I don’t usually admire scholarship in the arts or degrees in subjects like EngLit. They’re not serious and they’re mostly pursued by third-rate minds. But I take art and literature themselves seriously. And I admire and even idolize those who can do them well.

From what he writes about professors at Cambridge, James thought pretty much the same. He certainly knew that criticizing great art is not to be compared with creating great art. He himself tried to do both and was obviously a highly intelligent and talented man. A charismatic man too. And an attention-seeker with an unstoppable drive for self-publicity, which is why he ending up wasting his talents on the triviality of TV and the mass media. As Danny Baker is still doing. And yes, okay, like Danny Baker again, James wasn’t writing ground-breaking literature or revealing the secrets of the Universe in his autobiographies. But I can definitely recommend them, especially Unreliable Memoirs. It’s funny, poignant, self-revealing and self-lacerating. Like Baker, James was a much more complex and interesting man than his clowning on TV made me suppose.

Nou’s Who

Art Nouveau, Camilla de la Bedoyere (Flame Tree Publishing 2005)

This is an excellent introduction to some of the best artists and objets of art nouveau, from a cockerel tiara by René Lalique to an enamelled pendant by Phillipe Wolfers. Artist-and-art are presented over double-pages in a solid little paperback: on the right there’s a photograph of the art; on the left there’s a description of the art and a mini-biography of the artist.

Sometimes the art’s small, like jewellery or crockery; sometimes it’s big, like beds or buildings. Mostly it’s three-dimensional, which I think is best for art nouveau, but there are painting, posters and prints too. And after you’ve looked at all that, you’ll find an “Influences on Art Nouveau” section at the end, with artists from William Blake to Aubrey Beardsley. There’s a good introduction and index too. But the book has one flaw: not everyone and everything in the main section is art nouveau. For example, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was art deco. And I don’t like art deco.

A beautiful art-nouveau chair

What’s the difference? In a word, art nouveau is organic and art deco is geometric. In more words, art nouveau is inspired by nature and natural forms: leaves, flowers, feathers, flowing water and flying hair, butterflies, birds, gemstones, trees, seashells, trees, roots and rocks. It’s energetic and sinuous. Art deco is sometimes inspired by natural forms, but it simplifies and constrains them, reducing them to outlines or blocks of color. In one more word, art nouveau overflows, art deco underwhelms.

An ugly Charles-Rennie-Mackintosh chair

It underwhelms me, at least. Fortunately, there’s much more art nouveau than art deco in this book. And the author has a good name: Camilla de la Bédoyère is very art nouveau.

Through It All I’ve Always Laughed, Count Arthur Strong (Faber & Faber 2013)

The pictures are much better on the radio. But the pay and publicity are much worse, so radio comedians want to get on TV. That’s what happened to Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen. And though they lost a lot when they transferred, they were good on TV too. And they made their performers big stars.

Count Arthur Strong got on TV too, but the man behind the character, Steve Delaney, hasn’t become a big star. I don’t know how good he was on TV, but I do know how good he was on radio. Very good. The Count Arthur Radio Show isn’t as imaginative or as weird as Little Britain or The League of Gentlemen, but in its quieter way it’s just as funny. Or funnier. But it took me a while to tune in, as it were. The start of the show put me off at first. Count Arthur announces in a jaunty voice: “Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!” With rhotacismus. So I used to switch off almost straightaway. I thought the show consisted of silly voices and would-be whimsy. Then I listened properly to one episode and was converted. Count Arthur is very funny and very well-performed. The character is a deluded, would-be actor, raconteur, and expert Egyptologist and is obviously based on Hancock’s Half-Hour. But he doesn’t have the realism or melancholy of Hancock. And for me he’s better.

That said, I don’t think he works anywhere near as well on paper as he does on the radio. His misunderstandings and malapropisms are far funnier with the spoken word, whether he’s dragging a long-suffering shop-assistant or barman into a tangle of non sequiturs and misplaced accusations or delivering one of his ridiculous speeches and lectures. He slurs and splutters when he speaks, which adds to the comedy of what he’s saying. He can’t do that in print, though Steve Delaney tries to do the equivalent. This book is presented as though it’s a typed manuscript by Count Arthur, so he forgets to turn off the caps-lock, mangles spellings, misuses or forgets punctuation, and annotates the pages in biro or uses them for his shopping-lists.

And yes, all that is funny. But not as funny as the spoken stuff. And if you’re familiar with the spoken stuff, you’ll recognize a lot of recycled or previewed material. I recognized one early bit in the book from a recording of one of Count Arthur’s stage-shows. It’s one of funniest things I’ve ever heard him deliver, but if I hadn’t heard it first, would I have found it very funny in print? Maybe not. It’s a rare bit of risqué, you might say, because Count Arthur doesn’t usually rely on double-entendre or celebrity gossip. Here it is from the book:

She always looked younger that she was, did Mother. In fact, we’re all like that in my family. My Uncle Earnest looked like a toddler right up into his seventies. We’ve all got elastic skin like Mother had. Oh yes. I’ve never had any of my buttocks siphoned off and squirted into my forehead like some of them, thank you very much! Cliff Richard has it done more than once a fortnight! It’s a wonder he can sit down. His bottom must be red raw some nights. Lulu, she’s another one. Oh dear! It would be dreadful if they got the syringes mixed up and you ended up with Cliff Richards buttocks in your face. I wouldn’t know where to put myself. I mean I liked, ‘Mistletoe and Wine’, but I wouldn’t want his buttocks in my face.

In the stage-show, that made the audience howl with laughter. I think it’s still funny in print, but I don’t think this book captures much of what makes Count Arthur Strong so good and so funny as a radio or stage performer. Where it works, it works by reminding you of what the character sounds and acts like, not in its own right.

Beauties and Beasts — a review of Richard Adams’ Shardik (1974)

Fish, Not FrogDizionario Italiano: Dizionario della Lingua Contemporanea (Vallardi 2017)

Headstrong, Heroic and Hellbent on Glory – The Brigadier Gerard stories of Arthur Conan Doyle

Art of DarknessArt-Bandit: Interrogating the Outlaw Aesthetics of Über-Maverick Gay Atelierista John Coulthart, Dr Joan Jay Jefferson (Visceral Visions i.a.w. University of Salford Press 2022)

Fuller FrontalDeviant. Devious. Depraved.: The Sickening, Slimy and Sizzlingly Septic Story of Noxiously Nasty Necrophile Nonce David Fuller, David Kerekes, with an introduction by David Slater (Visceral Visions 2022)

Submarine SkinkUnderwater Adventure, Willard Price (1955)

Pair’s FairThe Dark Hours, Michael Connelly (2021)

Front Row for the Axl ShowNothin’ But a Good Time: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Glam Metal, Justin Quirk (Unbound 2020)

Posturing ProctoglossistHumour, Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press 2019)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Dizionario Italiano: Dizionario della Lingua Contemporanea (Vallardi 2017)

Here’s some advice I wish I’d had when I was still at school: if you’re learning another language, get a monolingual dictionary. That is, get a dictionary defining words of the language in the language itself. That way, you’re not distracted by English when you want to learn the meaning of a new word or phrase. You stay in the language, strengthening your mental muscles, and you learn faster and better. In short: be a fish, not a frog.

I’ve tried to be a fish, not a frog, in French and Spanish; now I’m trying it in Italian. Of the three, I find French the hardest to read and pronounce, Spanish the easiest. Italian is in the middle, but nearer Spanish than French. Italian and Spanish are very similar. Indeed, you could argue that their literary forms, at least, are dialects of something bigger rather than truly separate languages. Native speakers of one will find it very easy to learn the other.

And if you know some Spanish, you also know some Italian. This little dictionary will help you acquire more. But knowing English means knowing some Italian too, because English has a lot of Latin in it. Sometimes that Latin is easy to recognize in Italian and sometimes it’s a little more difficult. Eccelente is easy, ottimo a little more difficult. It means “best” and is related to the English word “optimal”. Italian regularly simplifies consonant clusters like that and often you can deduce what the original was and see the older word behind the sound change. However, I didn’t see the Greek behind this sound change:

eclissi s.f. oscuramento di un corpo celeste per interposizione di un altro: – totale, parziale.

That’s a good, succinct definition and this is mostly a good dictionary. However, it does sometimes send you in a circle, as with these two definitions (the accents are a guide to pronunciation):

disagévole agg. scomodo

scòmodo agg. disagevole

When I come across a circular definition here, I have to resort to an Italian-English dictionary. And when I do that, I learn again why a monolingual dictionary is so helpful in learning another language. An Italian-English dictionary will tell you that scomodo means “uncomfortable, awkward, inconvenient”. And okay, now you understand what the word means. But you understand in English and English has intruded into the brain-space you should, as far as possible, be reserving for Italian. These occasional circular definitions mean that I’d like to get a bigger and better Dizionario Italiano. If I do that, my Italian vocab will get bigger and my grasp of Italian will get better. But this small and cheap monolingual dictionary has already helped a lot.